Evil Dead Rise is at the crossroads of contemporary horror. Typically, horror cinema has worked by stimulating its audience physically, psychologically, or any combination thereof. Splatter films invite the squeamish among us to keel over and feel sick, while science fiction horror functions as an advertisement for staying home. But Evil Dead Rise marries both the existential horror popularized over the last ten years with the chaotic, physical violence of the Evil Dead franchise. The film is a rickety, wooden theme park ride, and is all the more fun because of it.
The Evil Dead movies have, largely, based themselves in stimulating their audience however they can. The campiness of Sam Raimi’s original trilogy (Evil Dead, The Evil Dead 2, and Army of Darkness) mixed hilarity with gore, powered by Raimi’s distinct, no-holds-barred directorial voice and Bruce Campbell’s enthusiastic Ash Williams. We’re invited to laugh while we scream. Fede Álvarez’s 2013 Evil Dead dropped the comedy of the original films to double down on gore, executed with impressive practical effects.
With this in mind, Evil Dead Rise has a lot to measure up to. From Irish director/writer Lee Cronin ( The Hole in the Ground), Evil Dead Rise follows guitar technician Beth (Lily Sullivan) as she visits her sister, Ellie (Alyssa Sutherland), in Los Angeles. Ellie is a single mother living in a high rise with her three children, Danny (Morgan Davies), Bridget (Gabrielle Echols), and Kassie (Nell Fisher). After an earthquake in their building uncovers the cursed Book of the Dead, also known as the Necronomicon, a demonic force possesses Ellie, forcing the remaining family members to fight for their lives.
Cronin’s thoughtful writing and measured direction, coupled with powerful performances from Sutherland, Sullivan, and Echols in particular, makes Evil Dead Rise an utterly terrifying thrill ride. While not as gory as the 2013 film, the film’s scares are like arrows carefully nocked and released, aimed squarely at the audience’s vulnerabilities. The film’s directorial precision is one of its strongest areas. Cronin clearly knows when to hold back and when to let all hell break loose. This helps keep Evil Dead Rise from feeling too overloaded with its attempts to scare us. After all, the horror set pieces can only work in contrast to safe, character-building scenes. Without giving too much away, the film’s scenes in a high-rise elevator will have the same effect that Jaws had on beaches in the summer of 1975.
Evil Dead Rise benefits from being both disturbing and terrifying. It’s a rare balance that makes it memorable against other contemporary demonic possession films. It operates like The Exorcist, but for mothers. Considering Cronin’s previous film also dealt with the relationship between a mother and child, Evil Dead Rise’s thematic focus fits expertly within his wheelhouse.
While demon-possessed mothers is by no means a new idea to horror, Evil Dead Rise succeeds in recreating what made Reagan’s possession in The Exorcist so disturbing. Like with Reagan, we fully understand who Ellie was before this horrible force entered her life. This makes her later transformation both tragic and terrifying, because we already have an emotional foundation for her character. Sutherland’s gnarly, teeth-gnashing performance as the Deadite Ellie sells this unadulterated evil even further. It’s absolutely one of the film’s highlights. Additionally, Davies, Echols, and Fisher play off each other so well as Ellie’s children that we feel just as terrified, and disturbed, as they do when they see their mother become a monster.
Given how many horror films about possession currently exist, this is no easy feat. Evil Dead Rise vanquishes its lesser contemporaries by building the humanity of its characters before ripping them to shreds. While this seems like a simple enough task, it is frustratingly rare to see in American studio horror films. Gone are the days where Evil Dead’s characters make the stupidest decisions possible, and act like fodder for Cabin in the Woods-type commentary. Here, Evil Dead Rise takes Evil Dead’s extreme physical violence a step further by adding emotional violence that will leave audiences feeling battered, but not hopeless.
That said, some fans of Álvarez’s 2013 film may find Cronin’s thematic focus to be an obstacle impeding them from their gory spectacles. Cronin’s film certainly doesn’t have the same level of nastiness as its predecessor. I found that to be a boon, considering that there are children in this story. Thankfully, Cronin wisely skirts misogynist tropes that have bogged down horror cinema’s representation of motherhood, making Evil Dead Rise a refreshing entry for this decade. While motherhood is the entry point into the film’s world of horrors, it is never at the expense of the characters, or their bodies. Evil Dead has a rocky history of violating cisgender women’s bodies for spectacle, but Evil Dead Rise abandons this for good. Given that it’s 2023, it’s about time.
Evil Dead Rise may tread familiar territory, but its strong character relationships, directing, and thematic focus make it a welcome entry into one of horror’s longest running franchises. Its commitment to both emotional horror and thrilling gore showcases how studio horror films can still exhibit the scrappy spirit of independent flicks. Long live the Evil Dead.